Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Elias Rios.
For the second night in a row (after seeing Emma Sipora Tyler in Emma) I watched a play in which a lead character bore the same name as the actor playing him. That doesn’t happen often. But the fact that I am opening with that random observation is probably a good sign that the second show, Desire in a Tinier House, which I saw as part of a tiny house (7) last night, left much to desire.
None of this was the fault of the play’s two actors. Both Rolando Seranno as Trevin and Carlos Wagener-Sobrero as (yes) Carlos are likable and do everything they can with a script by Ryan Oliveira that, though it purports to be about the passion of two gay men in a world that is increasingly hostile to their love, mostly seems to be a framework for including a lot of what a sign in the lobby calls “stimulated” sex before it shifts gears entirely in Act Two.
The play opens with Trevin delivering a long monologue that consists of a vividly detailed description of anal sex to Carlos, whom he has just met. Seranno oozes sensuality as he paints the graphic picture, and the ploy works: Carlos dumps the man he is with and goes off with Trevin to the “tiny house” (a small trailer) in which he lives. Over the first half of the play, between those “stimulated” sex sessions, the two men gradually get to know each other. Trevin is a young man who has done some amazing things in the world of computers, but dropped out when the government wanted to co-opt his inventions for Big Brother-like purposes. Now he makes “Funderwear,” a brand of men’s underwear designed to be, well, fun. Still, even in this new existence, he needs access to infrastructure much more complex than his never-completed two-room dwelling. At one point he heads to New York to open a shop, though where he intends to park this thing near the city is anyone’s guess.
Carlos, much more placid and more of a follower, allows himself to be seduced by the more dynamic Trevin, who uses grapes as a seduction tool. Grapes also represent a dream, an idyllic future Trevin paints in which the two of them can live on a large piece of land in California and open a vineyard. (I kept having flashes of the farm George describes to Lenny in Of Mice and Men.) Gradually these two very different men fall in love…just in time for a disaster of monumental proportions to strike that changes everything.
I won’t go into the details of what happens, but I will say that Oliveira doesn’t really think through the scenario he has given himself. One thing we do see is preposterous, a Handmaid’s Tale offspring that apparently leaves blind, mute, handless, zombielike gay people wandering the land. If this were played as satire, that would be one thing—showing the absurd extremes to which haters aspire to go in a week that has seen an Alabama mayor call for the execution of LGBT people. But Oliveira’s script and Topher Leon’s apparently faithful direction play it very straight (pardon the expression), seeking catharsis out of insanity.
Fortunately for the tiny house that watched the show with me, Seranno and Wagener-Sobrero are actors who display the ability to improve a wayward script. No matter what Oliveira calls upon them to do, they throw themselves into it. It’s easy to believe these two become lovers even if it is less easy to believe their second act behaviors in a script that increasingly doesn’t make much sense.
Desire in a Tinier House starts out as a celebration of gay sex and gay love, but its sudden intermission change has it turning into a warning about the depth of hatred in this country. This might have worked if the script didn’t push too far, but it does, and an Act Two coda that seems to assert that love can overcome anything just feels ridiculous: a playwright desperate to complete a metaphor but, ironically, unwilling to go all the way to the George/Lenny ending that would have made more sense. Unfortunately for the hard-working actors, I can’t recommend this play.
Desire in a Tinier House is now playing at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N Broadway, Chicago through June 29. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.